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Are Music Lovers Really ‘Getting’ the Squeeze?

Mastering’s loudness wars are certainly not news to Mix readers, but it looks like the word is finally spreading into consumer world. Case in point? This month’s splashy feature in Rolling Stone, “The Death of High Fidelity,” complete with hard-hitting quotes from our producer friends, a lively forum component, and tell-all shots of those squashed waveworms that we (unfortunately) know so well. And in the most unlikely of follow-ups, the Salt Lake Tribune followed suit last week with its own piece on loudness in mastering. Hell, even the YouTube crowd has gotten into the act; a quick search turned up a slew of basic videos on the effects of loudness in mastering that have received hundreds of thousands of hits. Someone is paying attention! (The YouTube links will help you make your case to your non-audio friends; click here.)

One point we’d like to make to the consumer media is this: Technology itself is not the root of this evil; rather, it’s the perpetuation in the pop world of the misguided idea that louder is better. As mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine stated in a December 2006 Mix article, “I happen to be a big fan of compression—it’s one of the most wonderful tools we have in audio, artfully applied—but this loudness race took any chance of artfully applying it out of the equation, and for me it’s about a fallacy: The idea that on the production end we should try to determine how loud the listener is going to listen to it. The paradox of it is, the more you do that, the less fun it is to listen to loud. If you leave some breathing in the music and then let the listener crank up the volume control, it’s a much more engaging and enveloping and fun way to listen to music.”

That said, the best we can do is just keep on educating those around us. In the RS article, Donald Fagan summed up the plight well: “With all the technical innovation, music sounds worse…God is in the details. But there are no details anymore.”